Breck Epic 2021 Stage 5: Wheeler

Gnarly storm unleashes high on Wheeler, testing racers at 12,000 feet

Anne Gonzales still smiling as she reaches the top. Photo by Eddie Clark

Swenson, Skarda stay perfect and inch closer to GC victories as bike racing’s essence shows through

Alexis Skarda rocking out on a gnarly Wheeler stage. Photo by Eddie Clark
Keegan Swenson navigates Wheeler summit and another stage win. Photo by Eddie Clark

By Devon O’Neil

BRECKENRIDGE — On a Wheeler stage that will live in Breck Epic lore, it paid to be fast Thursday. Rain, sleet, biting wind and all the earthbound challenges that such weather brings to alpine terrain pushed racers to the brink, breaking some, steeling others, yet seemingly having little effect on the sharp end of the field.

Keegan Swenson stayed perfect this week with another convincing victory. He broke from the pack about six miles into the 24-mile stage and rode alone to the finish, crossing in 2 hours 46 minutes 23 seconds—2:18 ahead of Luis Mejia, who finished second for the fifth straight day. Lachlan Morton was another 13 seconds back in third, after sprinting to the line ahead of Diyer Rincon.

Swenson’s GC lead stands at almost 12 minutes going into the final stage, the flattest and fastest of the race, with finish times typically under two hours.

Riders cross rock gardens as the cross Wheeler Summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Mike Hurst making the wet, cold descent. Photo by Devon Balet
Race leader Keegan Swenson came prepared for a wet day. Photo by Devon Balet

The women’s GC is in a similar state of non-flux after Alexis Skarda won again to extend her overall lead to 22 minutes. Skarda dropped Evelyn Dong on the Peaks Trail climb from Frisco to Breckenridge after Dong caught her on the 3,200-foot descent from the Tenmile Range crest. Skarda’s time of 3:31 was three minutes faster than Dong and 19 quicker than third-place finisher Rose Grant. Afterward the three women hung around the finish replaying their adventure.

Rain clouds blow over Wheeler Summit as the riders arrive. Photo by Devon Balet
A lone rider makes the approach to Wheeler Summit as rain clouds blow over. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda powers through the rain clouds on a way to another stage win. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda begins the descent off Wheeler summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Evelyn Dong summits. Photo by Eddie Clark
Adriana Rojas crests Wheeler summit. Photo by Eddie Clark

Grant: “Wow, that was so hard.”

Skarda: “I definitely ate a lot of mud and water.”

Dong: “I loved it.”

Skarda: “I tried to eat a piece of bacon [from the swine handup at mile 7], and I just chewed it and chewed it, and 10 minutes later I still had the whole thing in my mouth and was like, OK, this is not happening, so I spit it out.”

Dong: “There’s probably a marmot that was super psyched about that.”

RANDOM ACTS OF RADNESS

When Mother Nature decided to twist her knife, timing dictated that certain segments of the field endured a greater wrath than others. That’s when humanity stepped in. Not everyone who started the stage finished—more than 140 racers abandoned or were cut off due to time or safety—but those who did told stories of bike racing’s essence. One of them came from Mike Thompson, an Epic rookie from Louisville, Kentucky.

Thompson’s partner in the Duo 80-plus category dropped from the field early on, unbeknownst to Thompson. So Thompson continued riding, eventually coming upon a distraught competitor on the Tenmile crest at 12,400 feet. “He was sitting off the trail, crying and shivering,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘Dude, you gotta get up and get off this mountain.’ The wind kicked up, sleet was coming in sideways. He just started shaking his head. I was like, ‘No, dude, you gotta get the fuck up.’” Thompson helped the man continue to a lower, safer place. He also gave some of his food to additional stragglers later. “Doing what people do,” he said.

Meanwhile, farther downhill on Miners Creek Road, another racer stopped to eat a gel when he noticed a lady sitting beside the road, “shaking, in rough shape,” he recalled. “She was like, ‘Don’t leave me!’ and asked if we could ride together because she hadn’t seen anyone else. So we rode for a while before mountain rescue showed up. We got in their ATV and they drove us down the mountain. I hugged her for 20 minutes to keep her warm. I also saw a guy with a flat on top of the range and gave him my pump. So I have no idea where my pump is.” The good Samaritan only wanted to be identified by his first name, Ben. “Anybody would’ve done it,” he said.   

Diyer Rincon having a good day despite the rough weather. Photo by Devon Balet
Nash Dory approaches the summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Lasse Konecny emerges from the clouds on top of Wheeler Summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Chris Mehlman navigates wet boulders at 12,500 vertical feet. Photo by Devon Balet
John Rauen pushes through on the Wheeler stage. Photo by Devon Balet
The infamous goat trail leading to Wheeler summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Lachlan Morton still smiling on an epic Wheeler stage. Photo by Eddie Clark
Luis Mejia leads Nash Dory on stage 5. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rain clouds blow through. Photo by Eddie Clark
Pete Karinen has himself a little push on the way to Wheeler summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Even the best riders are forced to hike some section of Wheeler. Here Lasse Konecny battles the mountain. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rain clouds shrouded Wheeler summit throughout the day. Photo by Eddie Clark
Kenneth O’Donnell signals as he reaches the summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders brace the elements on a truly epic day of the Breck Epic. Photo by Eddie Clark
No smiles for Jacob Richardson as he approaches the summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Lead coed duo team of Blanco & Espinosa happy to survive an epic day. Photo by Eddie Clark

HOW’D IT GO TODAY? / HOW DO YOU FEEL?

After climbing 5,500 feet and cresting elevations of 12,300 feet three times—much of it while pushing their bikes—racers had plenty to reflect on.

“I feel absolutely terrible. That was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

“Like shit. Complete shit. You’ve got hail hitting your face, so you can’t feel your friggin’ face. It was a mess. But that’s why we do this, right?”

“When it was sleeting, I almost curled up in the fetal position and sucked on my thumb.”

“Today was the coldest I’ve ever been.”

“The only thing you could do was keep going. I’m so proud of myself for getting through that.”

“The downhill was a creek. Water running down, mud splashing, people endoing right in front of me.”

“Just relieved, because that was brutal, man.”

“Today broke me.”

“Fantastic. That was the most epic stage ever. To have rain and sleet on Wheeler is, like, legendary.”

“Mother. Fucker. That was the hardest day of my life. The last little uphill crushed my soul.”

“Great. I’m not redlining, I’m out here to smile.”

“My grip got loose and I went to brake and it twisted, and I went over the bars. There was a nice click when my face hit the rock.”

“I’m glad it was raining because I couldn’t see my tears. You just had to close your eyes and ride by feel.”

“Retrospectively, that was fun.”

“I’m going to tell my grandkids about today.”

Click Here for full results from all categories

Breck Epic Stage 3: Guyot

GC margins grow during Queen Stage around 13,370-foot Mt. Guyot

Alexis Skarda takes in some views before starting the descent on stage 3. Photo by Devon Balet

Local riders making moves as race moves into second half

By Devon O’Neil

BRECKENRIDGE — Despite a bit of late-race drama Tuesday, the Breck Epic’s Queen Stage delivered one more reminder who the fastest racers in the field are. Keegan Swenson overcame a brief, unintended detour to pad his lead in the pro men’s field, while Alexis Skarda won the pro women’s race by her biggest margin this week.

Race leader Keegan Swenson powers off the front with Luis Mejia in tow. Photo by Devon Balet

Swenson rode off course just before the finish (the exact cause was unclear, but it required him to pedal about two additional miles), yet he still won by 53 seconds ahead of perennial runner-up Luis Mejia of Colombia. Swenson’s winning time of 3 hours 18 minutes leaves him almost eight minutes up in the overall standings. Lachlan Morton remains in third overall, 20 minutes back of Swenson.

Lachlan Morton climbs up to the Colorado trail on day 3. Photo by Devon Balet

“I’m not doing any more work than I have to,” said Swenson, whose Santa Cruz team put burlier tires on his Blur CC for Tuesday’s rugged descents. “I didn’t attack [Mejia], he just fell off after Aid 3. So I was like, I’ll turn the screws just a hair and snap the elastic.”

Lachlan Morton leads the chasers after surviving the climb. Photo by Eddie Clark

Skarda, meanwhile, further separated herself in the GC standings with a time of 3:56 and a 6-minute advantage over Evelyn Dong, who remains in second overall, 8:35 back. Rose Grant took third and moved onto the GC podium heading into the week’s longest stage, Aqueduct.

Evelyn Dong sits in second just minutes behind the leader in the GC. Photo by Devon Balet
Rose Grant putting herself solidly in a podium spot for the GC. Photo by Eddie Clark
Adriana Rojas grinds out the last slopes before the summit. Photo by Eddie Clark

LOCAL HUSTLAS

The circumnavigation of 13,370-foot Mount Guyot takes riders over the Continental Divide twice, through two counties, and down some of the area’s sweetest singletrack for a total of 40 miles. It is typically one of two stages, along with Wheeler, in which locals improve their overall ranking. That didn’t happen with Breck’s Jarad Christianson, because he was already in first place in the men’s 30-plus category; but he tripled his winning margin from Stage 1. Christianson, 31, works 8-5 for a construction company and rides after work. He started entering local races four years ago. On Tuesday, he finished 15th overall, pros included, in the 387-rider Breck Epic (3:53—30 minutes faster than his 2019 time).

The only local ahead of Christianson, 17-year-old phenom Lasse Konecny, suffered what you might call a mining-town-only mechanical. An ancient, heavily rusted, 4-inch-long rectangular nail pierced his sidewall and exited his tread like an arrow through a banana late in the race. Konecny ran to the finish pushing his bike and losing minutes, but still finished ninth (3:39). He sits in 11th place overall, four minutes out of eighth.

Close to a dozen other locals are toeing the line this week, and not everyone is taking time off from work to compete. John Rauen, a 22-year-old who finished in 4:54, clocks in at an escape room from 3:30 to 10:30 p.m. every night between stages. The field is dotted with ski patrollers (Duke Barlow, Breck’s snow safety supervisor, finished in 4:51 on a recently replaced knee), massage therapists (Ro Mayberry took third in the Coed Duo division in 4:45), and government workers (Nicole Valentine, Summit County’s communications director, clinched the 3-day Open Women’s title in 5:27).

WHO NEEDS TWO GOOD ARMS?

One of the week’s most impressive sights was watching Robin Brown, a retired Las Vegas firefighter, navigate the high-speed technical descent from 12,000 feet with a prosthetic left arm. Brown and Mark Duncan, another Vegas firefighter, conquered the Queen in 6:07 and stand second in the Duo 100-plus class. Brown lost his forearm to a grain auger in Panhandle, Texas when he was 4, but he still played football, basketball, baseball, and golf growing up. He became a paramedic and captain in the Clark County Fire Department and has entered dozens of endurance races, but never the Breck Epic. Asked about riding the course with one hand, he said, “I don’t think anything of it.”

Robin Brown and Mark Duncan are currently in 2nd 100+ Duo

Another visiting racer, Sean Perry of Issiquah, Washington, has competed all week with a cast on his wrist. Perry suffered an intra articular fracture of his distal radius while training on the Miners Creek Trail three weeks ago—the most perilous descent in the race. It was his first ride in Colorado. “I thought there was no chance I would get to do the race,” he said. He finished the Guyot stage in 4:39.

Photo by Devon Balet
Keegan Swenson takes Skittles on board on his way up Mount Guyot. Photo by Devon Balet
Tobin Ortenblad grinding through the meadow with Skittles on his mind. Photo by Devon Balet
Chris Mehlman is sitting in the top-10 after day 3 of Breck Epic. Photo by Devon Balet
Benjamin Torvik feeling all the pain riding his singlespeed up the pass. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda stays focused on another win at stage 3. Photo by Devon Balet
Support crew cheering on the riders and handing our Skittles. Photo by Devon Balet
Riders topping out at the Skittles feed. Photo by Devon Balet
Time to refuel. Photo by Devon Balet
One got away! Photo by Devon Balet
More Skittles! Photo by Devon Balet
Isaac Centeno rocking out in the thin air and Rocky Mountains. Photo by Devon Balet
Keegan Swenson starts the descent from Mount Guyot with Luis Mejia behind. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoy the long single track descent back into town. Photo by Eddie Clark
Nash Dory putting in a top-notch performance at the 2021 Breck Epic. Photo by Eddie Clark
Starting the descent to home. Photo by Eddie Clark
Macky Franklin gets the payoff after climbing his singlespeed up Mount Guyot. Photo by Eddie Clark
Justin Desilets starts his descent. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoying a well-deserved DH run. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rebecca Gross opens it up on the DH. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoy the finish of stage 3. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders attack the Colorado trail single track on day 3. Photo by Liam Doran
Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders have endless views every stage of the Breck Epic. Photo by Liam Doran
Race director rallying the troops on stage 3. Photo by Liam Doran
Lasse Konecny has another top-10 performance on stage 3. Photo by Liam Doran
Benjamin Torvik wraps up another second place in the singlespeed group. Photo by Liam Doran
Riders can’t get enough Breckenridge single track. Photo by Liam Doran
Photo by Liam Doran

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

We posed this question just below the summit of 12,046-foot French Pass, the Queen’s high point. As usual, sentiments varied.

“Fantastic, thanks.”

“I’m not sitting in an office, so pretty damn good.”

“Can’t. Too much altitude.”

“Got a tail wind—what more can you ask for?”

“Like I look.”

“Literally could not be better.”

“I’ve got 20 pieces of metal in my elbow from Dirty Kanza. This is nothing.”

“Blessed.”

“As can be expected.”

“Fucking awesome, man.”

“Really?”

“Well, it depends. Are there Skittles up there?” Yes. “Fuck yeah. Then I feel amazeballs.”

Stan’s NoTubes-Pivot Team Announced for 2016

National champions Woodruff and Grant partner up on pro mountain bike squad

The Stan’s NoTubes-Pivot Team is pleased to announce its roster of elite cross country mountain bikers for 2016. Returning rider Chloe Woodruff has been joined by new signing Rose Grant.

“This team turned some heads last year, and I’m looking forward to building on that momentum with the continuation of support from Stan’s NoTubes,” said Chloe Woodruff who is both the current U.S. Cross Country and Short Track Mountain Bike National Champion. “We’ll have a presence at international races as well as the biggest domestic events.

Photo 1-3New recruit Rose Grant, a two-time U.S. Marathon Mountain Bike National Champion, excels at both marathon and cross country racing. “I am grateful to be a part of this small, tight-knit team with its high level of support and hope to make 2016 my best season yet!” said Grant.

Stan’s NoTubes Creative Director and Sponsorship Manager Chris Currie said, “Two of the friendliest and most talented athletes racing today, Chloe and Rose, have shown the world what our impact-absorbing Valor tubeless wheels can really do. Each has been a great ambassador for us and for the sport, and together, they represent a true powerhouse team. We can’t wait for this season to get rolling.”

Pivot stepped up as the team’s new co-title sponsor in 2016. “As part of our ongoing, long term commitment to both elite cycling and to making the best women’s racing bikes, Pivot is proud to support Chloe and Rose as they compete at the highest level around the world,” said Chris Cocalis, President and CEO of Pivot Cycles.

Chasing the Olympic dream

Both Woodruff and Rose have been named to the U.S. Olympic Long Mountain Bike Team, a list of candidates for possible selection to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil.

“The strongest two American riders will make the U.S. Olympic team, and while of course I’m working to be one of those racers, I’m also working hard to be more competitive on the international level and to push my U.S. teammates a bit further,” said Woodruff, a seven-time member of the U.S. national team at the World Championships. Her career resume includes national championship titles at the junior, under 23, collegiate and elite levels.

“My hope is that we’ll have a stronger collective showing at the World Cup and Olympic level. This year is all about keeping opportunities in perspective and doing my homework.”

Best known for her achievements in marathon racing, Grant considers herself a long shot for the Olympic team, but she’s excited to have the chance to mix it up among the sport’s best talent.

“I’m filled with gratitude to be named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Long Team. It is fuel for the fire and confirmation that hard work pays off,” said Grant. “At least for one more season, I’ll continue to focus on racing at the national level. With patience and proper planning, I hope I will find some success on the world level, too, when the timing is right.”

Photo 3-2Grant is one of the few pro female racers who juggles motherhood and racing. 2015 marked the first time that she was selected for and attended the Cross Country Mountain Bike World Championships, and in 2016, she heads into her fifth season as a pro, having worked her way up the ranks from being fully self-supported.

“I remember racing the Missoula XC in Montana in June 2013, my first true race of that season after giving birth to my daughter in March 2013. It was Chloe Woodruff, more than anyone else, who went out of her way to introduce herself, be encouraging and have a genuine conversation,” said Grant. “She has continued to be humble, noble and inspiring and works hard to be her best, and I’m proud to be her teammate.”

Woodruff also thinks highly of her new teammate. “Rose Grant is already one of the strongest racers in the country. She’s a make-no-excuses kind of competitor, and I’m thrilled that our team can give her the support and tools she needs to keep improving.”

Race calendar

The Stan’s NoTubes-Pivot Team will compete primarily in Olympic-style cross country races as well as the longer, more endurance-oriented marathon mountain bike races.

Both Woodruff and Grant will contest a mix of World Cup, US Cup and National Championship races. They’ll also target the Pan American Championships and domestic events such as the Epic Ride Off-Road Series.

Woodruff is aiming to build on her 2015 successes which also included a weekend sweep of victories at the Whiskey Off-Road in her hometown of Prescott, Arizona; a win at the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) round of the US Pro XCT; a victory at the Iceman Cometh; and a bronze medal at the Pan American Championships in Bogota, Columbia.

Grant is looking to improve on top three finishes at the Missoula and Colorado Springs rounds of the US Cup as well as the Whiskey Off-Road.

Bikes and wheels

Woodruff and Grant will train and compete on four different Pivot mountain bikes, all equipped with Stan’s NoTubes carbon Valor wheels.

“The Stan’s NoTubes carbon Valor wheels are phenomenal. Coming into last season, I knew they were going to be the lightest wheels that I’d ever raced, but I was floored by their durability, performance, and ease of setup,” said Woodruff. “The wheels let me confidently run low pressures while knowing I have an edge over my competitors on ‘other’ wheels.”

Grant said, “You can really feel the difference the Stan’s NoTubes carbon Valor wheels make in absorbing impacts, and it’s nice to have the most reliable tubeless system out there when it comes to setting up tires. They have ‘fast’ written all over them.”

Woodruff will race Pivot’s Mach 4 and Les 27.5” frames. “With Pivot and Stan’s NoTubes, I had the choice between 29″ and 27.5″ wheel sizes, and after some testing, I decided to go with the smaller wheels,” said Woodruff. “While I believe I can be fast on either wheel size, the typically steep and technical characteristics of the World Cup courses may give an edge to the smaller, more nimble 27.5” wheel size. The ultra-low standover of the smallest Pivot frames is a huge advantage for a rider my height.”

“Over the past couple seasons, I’ve focused a lot on building up my confidence on the challenging World Cup-level courses,” said Woodruff. “I’ve reached a point where I’m a much more proficient technical racer so now we’re starting to ask: ‘what’s going to be the fastest?’”

Grant, on the other hand, made different choices, opting for the 29” wheel platform.

“I am lucky to have both hardtail and full suspension race bikes from Pivot in 2016,” said Grant. “I’ll race my Pivot Les 29er carbon hardtail at most events because it is a very lightweight and tight-handling, responsive cross country bike with all the benefits that naturally come with 29” wheels.”

“When I want full suspension for some of the more technically challenging courses, I’ll ride the Pivot Mach 429SL carbon 29er, it’s an ultra-fast full suspension racebike that handle whatever the race throws at it.”

Both riders will use the Pivot Vault bikes for training on the road or gravel or doing cyclocross.

Sponsors

The Stan’s NoTubes-Pivot Team is also sponsored by Shimano (drivetrain, brakes, pedals); Maxxis (tires); Castelli (custom clothing); Clif Bar (nutrition); Fox (suspension); PRO (components); Pearl Izumi (shoes, gloves); Kask (helmets); Feedback Sports (trainers); and Cassette Creative (design, marketing).

2015 Stan’s NoTubes-Pivot Team

Chloe Woodruff, 28, Prescott, AZ

Rose Grant, 33, Whitefish MT